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Imagining Alternative Futures Through Futurist Pedagogy

As educators, we must push past the call to “prepare students for the future.” This approach is insufficient and ultimately hazardous. 

 

The continued lack of diversity in popular media, STEM, science fiction, the K-12 teaching force, academia and many other realms should be a warning: Our world will probably not become more equitable or appreciative of its diversity without intervention. If we just let the societal machine run as is, I worry we could be headed for a dystopian world that rivals any we’ve imagined in literature and films. Futurist pedagogy may be a way for educators and students to make a difference.

Futurist pedagogy focuses on imagining and creating ethical forms of technology in the present to influence the future. It pushes us beyond the now cliché rhetoric of “preparing students for the future.” That idea is not only inadequate; it’s downright hazardous. This notion of being prepared for the future suggests to all parties involved that our futures are inevitable and determined solely by forces far outside of ourselves. If this current political season illustrates anything, it’s that the future teeters, constantly, on the choices we make in the present.

Little has been written about using a futurist framework for teaching and learning, and I myself have not had the opportunity to implement futurist pedagogy in a classroom. So I ask that you join me in imagining this alternative pedagogy, which I believe will help us envision alternative futures. 

Don’t worry! Futurist pedagogy doesn’t require teachers to show up for class on Hoverboards or via holograms. You can apply futurist principles no matter what kinds of technology are actually available to you. The latest gadgets are great, but more important to futurist pedagogy is helping students think critically about technology so they understand both the productive and destructive potential of technology that they or others create. Teachers in futurist classrooms lecture less, question more, encourage experimentation and risk, and diligently nurture their students’ sense of agency and empowerment.

We can begin with the items that are literally already in students’ hands—phones, pencils, pens, backpacks and even cups or napkins all count as technologies. The key is to acknowledge the importance of digital technology without limiting our notions of technology to just digital gadgets. Ask students to think about the myriad non-digital technologies that have changed, for better or worse, the world around them. How different would our society be if paper and pencil had never been invented? How might cellphone cameras enrich or detract from our lives?

Once students are aware of just how much they interact with a variety of technologies every day, we can also ask students to imagine the causes and effects of various technologies. To inspire them, here’s a story of four teenage girls in Nigeria who used an unconventional fuel source to power a generator. How could this invention change a rural community or a community recently hit by a natural disaster? What subject-area knowledge might have gone into these girls’ invention process? 

Futurist pedagogy is about far more than material technology though. It’s equally important to talk about the “social technologies,” or practices and systems that have served to shape our world. This could involve a critique of the U.S. Electoral College system, the practice of standardized testing or U.S. immigration laws throughout history

Most important, the futurist classroom must task students with imagining the futures they want and inventing the technologies, practices or systems that would make such futures possible. For example, students read and write science fiction or speculative texts to spark their imaginations about what the future could be. They consider history in light of how various materials and social technologies helped shape our present. Current events related to course content is the center of discussion and debate, with an emphasis on how those events could affect our future. Students work with each other and with other members of their communities to identify local problems that they’re passionate about solving. They collaborate and apply interdisciplinary knowledge to design and build physical technologies or implement social technologies that have direct impact in their classrooms, schools, neighborhoods or homes. They ask questions—lots of questions!—especially, “What if?” They brainstorm, experiment, write proposals, test prototypes, launch pilot programs, analyze results, tweak, return to square one or move forward.

The futurist classroom is extremely challenging. Beyond testing students’ content knowledge, a futurist pedagogy can help students develop a deeper knowledge of themselves as active agents of change that don’t have to sit passively in desks and wait for some future to happen to them. Students will leave the futurist classroom prepared to create alternative futures for themselves, their families, communities and even the world.

In trying out futurist pedagogy, we will find ourselves in a similar cycle of brainstorming and experimenting, assessing and tweaking. Why not begin that brainstorming process right now? Leave a comment and tell us how you might apply some futurist principles in your classroom. 

Webb is a Ph.D. candidate at Louisiana State University and the founder of ColorismHealing.org.